What New EU Rules Might Mean for Gig Workers

Ben Wray


Paris Marx is joined by Ben Wray to discuss the fight to win a pro-worker Platform Work Directive in the European Union, Uber’s rollout of dynamic pricing, and how Barcelona taxi workers have fought back against ride-hailing.


Ben Wray is the coordinator of The Gig Economy Project and the co-author of Scotland after Britain: The two souls of Scottish independence. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @Ben_Wray1989.

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Paris Marx: Ben, welcome back to Tech Won’t Save Us!

Ben Wray: Thanks so much for having me, Paris — it’s always good to talk to you!

PM: Absolutely. It’s always great to chat. It’s always great to get an update on what’s going on with the fight against the gig platforms in Europe, to see if workers are winning out, finally getting some wins over on your side of the pond, of course. Especially in the show, I think we pay a bit more attention to what’s going on in North America — just because that’s where I have more insight into. But it’s always great to get updates on what’s going on in other parts of the world. Certainly, there are some really important things happening in Europe at the moment. I figured it was a good time to have you back on to get back into those things.

In particular, the main thing is what’s called the Platform Work Directive, which is moving forward at the level of the European Union. It would have really huge implications for the gig economy across the bloc once it comes into force. Obviously, there are still questions as to what this is going to look like who it’s going to favor in the end, there’s still a lot of discussions and negotiations ongoing. So I think to start, maybe just lay the foundation for us. What is the Platform Work Directive. How would this sort of thing work if it’s brought in at the EU level. What would it mean for the various member states? Does that mean that it automatically applies to all of them?

BW: Yes, it would. All 27 member states — the Platform Work Directive would apply across the board. There’s thought to be around 20 million platform workers in Europe, and the Platform Work Directive, or the most important aspect of it, is that it would create what’s called a presumption of employment in the platform economy. Whereby, essentially what that means is that the legal starting point would be that they are the employees of the platform and if a platform wanted to contest that it can go to court and contest and potentially win. The onus would be on the platforms rather than the workers to contest that. Right now, it’s the case that workers, across Europe go to court cases, win those court cases very often but it only changes their individual situation. It doesn’t change the situation in the workforce as a whole. So by reversing what they call the burden of proof, and putting the onus on the platforms, they would have to pursue those court cases that they didn’t think a worker was an employee. It’s quite an important change. It’s comparable to AB5 in California in terms of the effect it would have.

In the second part of the Platform Work Directive, there’s a whole suite of algorithmic rights that workers would get if the directive is passed. The right to know if they’re being monitored, what data is being collected on them, a right to human explanation of important decisions, so it’s not robo-firing, and these sorts of things. That’s really the basics of what’s in the Platform Work Directive. Now, the process for it getting passed is very complex, because the European Union legislation is a complex process. Let me try to talk you through the basics of it: There are three institutions that really matter in passing legislation at European Union level. The first is the European Commission, which is the executive body of the EU. It’s a non-elected, administrative body. The European Commission in December 2021 published a draft proposal for the Platform Work Directive with what I’ve outlined being the main parts of it.

The second body is the European Parliament — that’s the elected part of the European Union. The European Parliament has just agreed on what amendments it wants to make to the European Commission’s draft proposal. That was agreed earlier in February. There was a big tussle about that, the platform lobby put a lot of pressure against the proposal that was put forward, but it was passed. It was victory against the platform lobby. The European Parliament’s amendments really strengthen aspects of the European Commission’s proposal. The European Commission had some wording in there, which attach certain conditions onto whether you are considered an employee or not. And it was thought that that would create legal loopholes for the platforms to find ways to get out of employing the workers. The European Commission proposal closes those loopholes and strengthens the algorithmic rights aspect. That’s the second body, and it has got its position.

The third body is the Council of the EU, and that’s the member states. They are represented within an EU decision making process as well. Now, they are still consulting on what amendments they want to the Platform Work Directive. From July to December 2022, the Czech Republic had the Presidency of the Council of the EU — it’s a rotating presidency. They tried to push for a proposal which would have basically made the directive completely toothless. So, it included ridiculous things in it. Just to give you an example, it included a clause whereby the presumption of employment would be null and void if a platform had a collective agreement with any union. It could be a yellow union, crappy agreement. Now, I’m sure in the US, there’s many examples with Uber and other platforms. That would null and void the whole legal presumption of employment.

Thankfully, that didn’t pass, the Czech proposal. There was a majority for it, of member states, but they need a two-thirds majority to come to a position in the EU Council. So it didn’t pass, and the rotating presidency has changed. The Swedish presidency is in charge now and they actually supported the Czech proposal. So it’s a right-wing Swedish government — there are other reasons I won’t go into now about why the Swedish government didn’t want a presumption of employment for platform workers. They’re trying to find a way to get the blocking minority, as it’s called, of member states on board with a right-wing proposal that watered down the directive. Now, this is a vital aspect of this confusing process. Once the Council of the EU has its position, and once the European Parliament has its position, those two organizations then have inter-institutional negotiations where they agree on one common position and that position is the one that becomes the final one that’s passed into legislation.

There’s still a long way to go in this process. It is all lacking in transparency. There’s not even minutes kept of the Council of EU meetings. That’s a wider issue about EU democracy that’s problematic. We’ll see how it goes. But certainly the European Parliament vote was a big victory for campaigners, for platform workers rights. The platform lobby will fight until the end, basically, to stop legislation being passed which would mean they would have to do the basic things of being an employer: sick leave, holiday pay, and all the other things that most workers take for granted.

PM: I appreciate you outlining all of that, because it is a very complex process. One of the things that seems familiar to — if I’m thinking about the US context — is when you’re talking about the Parliament, the Council and the Commission coming together once they have their versions. To come to a common agreed version is similar to in the US Congress there are instances where the House and the Senate have different versions of a law, and they have to come together for negotiations and whatever they come up with is what ends up going to the president to see if he or she is going to sign it or not. It’s really interesting to see that

I’m wondering, obviously, you said the commission had their version of this first, and then the Parliament passed a version that was much more pro-worker than what we were expecting to see out of this process, looking at what the Commission had done. As you say, the Council, it’s still waiting to see what’s going to come there, but it’s leaning more right wing, which is not particularly great. Is there a reason why the Parliament went for a more pro-worker version of the Platform Work Directive versus what we had seen before, and did the Uber Files revelations that we had last year make any impact in pushing them in that direction?

BW: Uber Files was a big scandal, but it doesn’t seem to have really put a dent into Uber, as yet, and that’s true in Europe as anywhere else. But I do think that it was a big scandal, and it was a scandal was focused on Europe as well, because the revelations from Mark MacGann — he was the whistleblower and was the former European chief lobbyist at Uber. A lot of the information he had was about things that had gone on in Europe and France in particular. He actually spoke to the European Parliament near the end of last year. He backed a strong Platform Work Directive, which I think was important. It definitely has an impact. The key dynamic that’s going on at the European Parliament level is that the right wing are completely divided on this issue. The reason why they’re divided is because part of the right wing thinks that what we need is a level playing field for capitalism in Europe. Basically, they’re tied to old industry. So they wonder why are these tech companies getting away with not paying any social security contributions? My business has to pay the minimum wage and all that stuff — why don’t these new kids on the block have to? A proper old school, free market competition capitalist perspective.

Another part of the right-wing is more influenced by the platform lobby, which is very strong in the EU. It thinks this will destroy innovation, and all the usual rhetoric of the platform lobby — that it’s going to destroy jobs and platform workers don’t want rights anyway, and all that sort of stuff. So they’re divided. And I think part of the right-wing has voted for the European Parliament legislation, part of it has opposed it. I don’t have any great insight into this. But it’s also the case that Members of the European Parliament are easier for workers to lobby. It’s quite difficult to lobby the member states. Most platform workers don’t even know what they’re up to, at the EU level with member states. It’s all very much an opaque process. So I think the MEPs are a bit more publicly available, and there has been a good campaign to put pressure on them from trade unions and that sort of thing. So I think that probably has an impact as well.

PM: You mentioned the algorithmic rights that are in the Platform Work Directive, and I feel like this is is a bit novel. I feel like when we see these discussions in North America, in particular, they focus a lot on employment status, and not so much on this algorithmic piece of it. Have there been other jurisdictions that have already added some of these protections in for gig workers? And what would it mean for them to have more control or even visibility into the data and the algorithms and how this stuff all works?

BW: Well, for me, it’s a hugely important issue when it comes to the gig economy. Because really gig workers, if they want to build power, they should be thinking of themselves as data workers. There’s so much data that is kept on everything that they do — all that data comes from their labor. So they should be able to access that data; they should be able to understand what they’ve done to be able to collectively bargain for higher wages, and all that sort of sort of thing. These are data workers, and they need to have access to it to be able to defend the rights. In Europe, so far, very few governments at the national level, there’s only really one example in this in Spain, where they passed what’s called the Rider’s Law in 2021. And part of that Rider’s Law was that trade unions or other representatives of workers would have access to the algorithm. This is where it gets very complicated. What does it mean to have access to an algorithm? And what does that look like? What do the platforms have to provide, which show they’ve provided genuine access to the algorithm?

The algorithm is a set of management instructions. There’s a bunch of things that the management wants a data processor to order workers to do via the app. It’s nothing more than that, really. But how do the trade unions know that they have genuine access? What does that even look like? So I think there’s been a big problem in Spain with the laws being passed. There hasn’t been, as far as I understand, any genuine access to the algorithm that the trade unions have got so far. The Platform Work Directive at the EU level is a lot more detailed than the Spanish law about what it’s asking for. It’s specific things, like you need to know about this automated tool, that automated tool. So, it’s a lot better in that sense. I interviewed a while back a data expert, and he had a lot of criticisms of it — that it could be stronger, and that sort of thing. But I think it would provide gig workers with some level of access, but they will still need help even if you get that access. I’ve seen workers who have been able to get access through what’s called GDPR rights in the EU. It’s just a bunch of tables and spreadsheets and all that sort of stuff. If you want to actually make sense of that, you really need data workers to help you with that. Trade unions really need to invest in these sorts of things if they think it’s important.

But I think the Platform Work Directive would be a good starting point, anyway, for algorithmic rights for workers. But I know we’re going to have a chat about dynamic pricing in this podcast. And that’s an example of something which is not even considered in the Platform Work Directive. So part of the problem is that this legislation takes a long time. It’s been years since we first started talking about the Platform Work Directive in Europe. It’s still not passed. And the platforms move on — they develop new strategies, new techniques of exploitation, and the legislation doesn’t keep up. The danger is that you end up passing something that, by the time it’s in law, it’s not properly regulating the platforms.

PM: Yeah, because they are constantly evolving and changing and implementing new ways to exploit workers and increase their bottom lines, especially at this moment where there’s increased pressure on them to find a business model that can actually make a bit of money, because the interest rates have gone up, the access to cheap money is not as readily available as it once was. And so yeah, you can see how these companies are evolving. And the regulation needs to be able to reflect that. I think it’s really interesting what you say there as well about obviously, if the workers get access to the data, that doesn’t mean that, oh, they have all this magical insight into everything that happens, because they need to be able to actually understand the data and see what is in the data.

And especially if there’s not rules that say that the companies have to provide it in a means that is actually understandable, and not just, as you say, a table of numbers and whatnot. And it does seem like that is a place where unions really have to be involved and really have to be investing in having this infrastructure and these capabilities put in place so that they can help workers to understand this. Because if you accept what Uber says that all of these workers are like independent contractors or whatever, it makes it much more difficult for them to then have the capabilities to be able to look into this data. But if they’re collectively organized and have collective structures behind them that have the capabilities to help them with these things, then that could potentially make some difference.

BW: Absolutely. I completely agree.

PM: That’s an interesting direction that this could go, and I guess we’ll see what comes out of it. I’m also wondering, because the Uber Files revelations gave us a bit more of an insight into how the Uber lobbying and the gig work lobbying more generally works in Europe. It’s not like we didn’t know any of this before. But it gave us a bit of a clearer picture of some of these things. When it comes to the Platform Work Directive, I’m assuming these companies have been very active in trying to reshape it to serve their interests. Can you talk to us a bit about what that has looked like?

BW: So we did an interview with Leila Chaibi, a Member of European Parliament. She’s a French politician and she leads what’s called the Left in European Parliament Group. She leads on the question of the platform economy. And we spoke to her about what’s the campaign been like, the pressure been like on politicians, and she said that a lot of MEPs have said it’s been the most intense they’ve experienced in terms of them trying to put pressure on them to go with the platforms. They’re bombarded with emails, campaign meetings, trying to get people to come along to events, working with organizations like think tanks that they pay money to for reports — all the range of tactics that we know. And actually, the Uber Files also brought some some revelations about that, as well, the academics who have been paid by Uber to write articles and op-eds in publications. That’s sort of things that they do and are continuing to do.

There were really two arguments that the platform lobby made against the European Parliament proposal. The first was that this will cost jobs. They had a report from a Copenhagen think tank saying that potentially half of all jobs in digital labor and digital labor platforms would be lost, which is ironic, considering they don’t believe that they’re employees. If they are these entrepreneurs, then they’re not going to lose their job are they, because there’s so entrepreneurial who can go and just do something else. So it’s a bit of a contradiction there. And then the second argument was specifically about the presumption of employment aspect, where it said, every platform worker — it doesn’t matter what you do, if you’re a genuine freelancer or not — you would automatically be made an employee under this legislation. So for example, let’s say you’re a graphic designer, on a website like Upwork, or like freelancer.com, you would automatically be an employee overnight. That’s not how people get employed. It’s total nonsense. Legislation doesn’t pass at the EU level, then suddenly, you’re on the payroll of one of these platforms overnight.

Basically, what would happen is the starting point for a dispute about whether you should be employed or not, would be that you are an employee. So if you are working for a platform, and you say: Wait a minute, why am I not getting access to sick leave, and all that sort of thing? And the platform said: Well, because you’re not an employee with us. The responsibility would be on the platform to pursue a court case to prove that you’re not an employee. It doesn’t mean that, suddenly, you have a contract overnight or anything like that. So it’s total nonsense, what they were saying, but it was trying to scare legislators into thinking that if they the support this legislation, there is going to be some sort of economic catastrophe and lots of people against their will are going to be turned into employees overnight, rather than freelancers. That’s the sort of propaganda you’re dealing with as a sort of level of the debate, unfortunately.

PM: Ben, I’m absolutely shocked that the gig companies would try to mislead people as to the implications of their business models and regulation on them. I just can’t believe they would do that [both laugh]. Hardly uncommon tactic for them. And I think that this is particularly important — putting the onus on the platforms to have to prove that the workers are employees, rather than the employees always having to take the cases to court to try to get the recognition. As we’ve seen over the past number of years, this is a really important reversal of fortunes there for how this could work and what it could mean for the workers going forward to be able to get access to the rights and benefits and protections that they should have had since the beginning. It’s unfortunate that it’s still 2023, and we’re still talking about how they’re going to do this. But I guess at least it’s moving forward in some capacity. I’m wondering if we’re looking at the Platform Work Directive, where do you see this going next? Obviously, you said that the Council still has to look at this and figure out their version of what this is going to look like, and negotiations have to come after that. How long do you see this process taking to play out? And what do you think things are going to look like in in the coming months as there’s more negotiation, and as these things continue to move forward?

BW: So there’s no sort of official timeline on how long this is going to take. And as I’ve said, already, there’s no transparency process. So we don’t really know the word on the street. I’m not one of those journalists who has got an ear in the Council of the EU or anything like that. But the word among those who do is that March is going to be when this is going to get sorted out. Now, what does it mean for it to get sorted out in the Council of the EU? Basically, the blocking minority of seven or eight states, right now, they need to win a couple over. Two or three states over to have a two-thirds majority. So Germany, for instance, abstained in the last vote. They didn’t vote against the Czech proposal — they abstained. So they would be the sort of state that they’ll be trying to — they’ll water down the Czech proposal sufficiently thatthey can bring a couple over.

The strategy for the left, that Leila Chaibi has outlined, is because the presidency rotates every six months, they want to delay the process until July, when the Spanish would take over the presidency of the Council of the EU. Spain is the state that is the most aggressive in terms of wanting a strong Platform Work Directive, because they already have a similar type of law — the Rider’s law — in Spain. That would potentially make a difference. But you’ve got to remember, even if that does happen and Spain take over the process of developing this law, the majority of states are against what’s being proposed anyway. So they would have to make lots of compromises anyway.

My view is that the legislation we’re going to end up with is going to be a bit of a mishmash between what the Parliament wants and what the Council wants. It’s probably not going to be great, but it’s probably going to be some sort of a step forward. You’ve got to remember, a lot of the time at EU level, we’re seeing steps backwards, neoliberal legislation being passed, because the EU as an institution — I think there’s more corporate lobbyists in Brussels than there are Brussels bureaucrats. And there’s a lot of Brussels bureaucrats. So, that shows you how many corporate lobbyists there are. You get the idea of the sort of institution it is — it’s not that penetrable for mass movements, which generally operate at a national level, not at supranational EU level. So even for legislation, it’s not perfect, but it’s some sort of progress. If it’s passed, it would be quite a historic event. So I don’t want to be too negative about it. But probably, it won’t be as good as sort of you and I would like to see.

PM: I appreciate you outlining that, too. I wonder just briefly, can you give us an idea of how this breaks down in terms of which countries or regions of the EU are more of a pro-Spanish position — having a strong Platform Work Directive — versus which ones are more on the side of the platforms?

BW: The divide is generally Southern Europe is more pro a strong Platform Work Directive. Eastern Europe is more against a strong Platform Work Directive. France is very strongly against a strong Platform Work Directive, because Emmanuel Macron’s presidency is very close to the platform lobby, and in Germany, it’s sort of on the fence. So that’s the kind of geographic spread. Why the Eastern Europeans are so in favor? Generally the governments there are quite right-wing; after the fall of Soviet Union, socialism was in such a sort of bad regard that the governments tend to be very, very right-wing there and the platform lobby seems to have a lot of influence. So that’s unfortunate. I mean, it’s difficult to see, when states have these positions, the extent to which they reflect any real social forces in their countries. The public, in all these countries, they’re not talking about the Platform Work Directive; they are not thinking of the Platform Work Directive. I can’t sit here and say everyone in Eastern Europe loves the gig economy. That’d be nonsense. But the states, they seem to be quite close to the corporate lobby. And that’s certainly how they’re behaving around this legislation.

PM: That makes sense, especially if, as you say, what happens at the level of the European Union is a bit more divorced from those national movements and the actual demands that are happening on the ground or within certain countries. I want to ask a few clarifying questions on a few of countries. Italy, we know it has a very far-right government right now. It’s still part of Southern Europe — where would you say it falls on this?

BW: It’s a good question. Actually, it’s not totally clear as it stands. So when Italy voted against the Czech proposal, the new Italian Government, I don’t think it was actually in place yet. The far-right government of Giorgia Meloni. Whether it’s position is reversed now is probably going to be one of the important factors in whether the Swedish presidency can get the legislation through or not. As I understand that government, it is sort of pro-corporate government, and is against workers rights, which is typical of the of the far-right. So I would expect that to be the case, but it’s not totally clear as it stands.

PM: And the Nordic countries, obviously, you’ve said Sweden is more on the platform side of things. They have a new right-wing government that came in last year that is in coalition with the far-right party. How do the Nordic countries in general respond to these questions? Because they’re generaly, in some of the discourse that we get, these are the social democratic Nordic countries that are pro-workers rights and blah, blah, blah, how do they fall on this on this question?

BW: So they come at it from a very different perspective, because we’ve got to remember in a country like Sweden, the model there, the labor model there, is not based on employment status, anything like that. It’s very much based on collective bargaining. That’s the strength for Nordic social democracies — strong trade unions; sector-level, institutional collective bargaining with employers associations on the other side. These big bodies sitting around the table and thrashing out wages, conditions, and that sort of thing. Obviously, that’s not the situation for the vast majority of European workers anymore. In fact, it never was for the majority of European workers. But at one stage, it was for the majority of Nordic workers. Even now, in a country like Sweden, lots of workers are not represented by trade unions, are not part of strong sectoral collective bargaining negotiations. So the right-wing used what’s called the Swedish model to justify its opposition to the Platform Work Directive. They say, we’ve never needed to have employment status or anything like that. We negotiate informally between unions and employers, therefore we reject the Platform Work Directive.

But of course, within Sweden, the workers that this would impact, the food delivery couriers, the drivers, they are not negotiating with Uber on a collective bargaining basis. It’s one of those things where a big victory for the labor movement 30-40 years ago has ossified, and turned into its opposite 30-40 years later to actually defend the neoliberal status quo. I think that that’s really what’s happened in Sweden. I don’t think it would even make that much of a difference whether it was the previous social democratic government or this new right-wing government, because it seems to be a consensus there, that we’re going to defend the Swedish model, even though the Swedish model in practice has really been eroded a long time ago. So it’s quite interesting, I’d like to learn more about. But I think that’s the basis of the Nordic opposition to the date.

PM: That’s really fascinating actually, to understand those dynamics and how it plays into this discussion. If we look at Germany, they had an election in 2021, the Social Democratic party came back to power. Obviously, they are in coalition with the greens and more of a centrist party there. You said that they abstained the last time that the Czech proposal came up. What does it look like they are going to do on this proposal? Because I guess you would imagine they have a more left-leaning government in power now — why are they not backing these rights?

BW: In theory, you would hope it’s a more left-leaning government. I’m not sure if it’s really turned out that way so far in practice. It’s not clear what the German position is — whether it’s going to change, why they abstained. This is the thing, a lot of this stuff is very murky. The Germans abstained on it and that’s decisive in the directive not going through to the EU Council level. There is not a question that journalists are asking the German government, why did you abstain? Can you justify that? It’s very murky about why they’re taking that position. Germany has its own laws in place whereby I think almost all platform workers are employees in Germany as it stands. So you would think that they would see this as a natural extension of what they already have in place in Germany. It’s a bit odd, actually, that Germany has abstained, but I can’t tell you why that is, or whether it’s going to change, unfortunately.

PM: I’m enjoying digging into the different perspectives of the different governments. I appreciate this! I have one final one that I want to ask about. And that’s obviously France, which you’ve mentioned. They have been more on the platforms side of things. There were revelations when the Uber Files came out that Emmanuel Macron, personally was close with the platforms and the lobbyists. And there was a particular scandal in France over the revelations that came out that showed the closeness between the French government and Uber and the platform companies. Has this impacted the orientation of the French government on these issues, or does Macron just not care? We know he’s pushing through these pension reforms and these other anti-worker measures right now. Does he just not care and he’s going forward with it anyway, regardless of the criticism and everything that’s happening?

BW: It’s definitely the latter. So when the Uber Files scandal came out, and it revealed that before he was a prime minister, he was a cabinet minister in a social democratic French government. And basically in, I think Marseilles, Uber had just launched there. As usual, they didn’t ask anyone — they just launched. There was big taxi protests against it, I think there was some conflict between the taxi drivers and the Uber drivers. And the mayor of Marseilles just was demanding Uber be kicked out. And basically, Macron worked behind the scenes to defend Uber and to defend that Uber can continue to operate and even though they don’t have a license to do so. And basically, when Macron was asked about this, he said: I would do all over again, the same as I did before, because it’s been good for jobs and good for the French economy, which is nonsense by the way. It’s not been good for the French economy, the Uberization, not even in terms of GDP, or any of the kinds of mainstream metrics. It hasn’t been good for the French economy. So basically, Macron is as loyal as ever to the platform lobbies, convinced this innovation, it’s good for France.

So in France, the established last year something called a social dialogue process, whereby the French government established a new department, which would act as a sort of arbitrator, mediator between the platform lobby and elected representatives of platform workers. But the process for those elections was very controversial, because it was done by someone who formerly worked closely with Uber. So it was very controversial with lots of the unions boycotting the process and that sort of thing. But anyway, the social dialogue process went ahead. And recently, they agreed a minimum wage for platform workers, but it is a very, very low level that the drivers will get. So it’s much lower than the average check would be, but I guess it offers some level of social protection. So the French government are using this “success” to say: Look, social dialogue is the way to ensure platform workers rights going forward, not changing the laws. So that’s their argument, that the French social dialogue model should be the model for the whole of Europe. So Macron is really in the vanguard of pushing a model which defends lack of employment rights and justifies the platforms’ business model.

PM: Man, what a terrible guy!

BW: Lots of liberals love to defend Macron still, especially those who don’t really know what’s going on in France, but you’re right, he’s a terrible man.

PM: The only reason I think that he looked as good as he did is because he successfully was able to fight against Marine LePen the whole time, instead of really being up against a more energized left. Obviously, there has been excitement about Mélenchon in the past couple of elections. But the left seems to be in a tough place in in France these days. So I think you’ve given us a really good insight into the Platform Work Directive and how this breaks down along country lines and where it looks like this might go next. You mentioned earlier as well, that dynamic pricing is rolling out across Europe right now. This is something that Uber is implementing, and it’s a shift to the way that its services were priced in the past — a more algorithmically driven mode of pricing. Can you tell us a bit about what dynamic pricing is, and what the concern is on the side of workers, but also what it means for people using these services as it rolls out even more?

BW: Yes, because it definitely impacts on both workers and consumers. So dynamic pricing basically means highly variable prices for consumers and highly variable pay. I’ll explain why those two things are separate and are not the same. And that’s an important aspect.

PM: This is distinct from the surge pricing that they used to have before, right?

BW: So they often lump the language of dynamic pricing together in terms of surge pricing, dynamic pricing. But yes, I think to think about this, it’s better to think about it in a way which is distinct. So, surge pricing, as you say, was something very specific, that’s when a football match or a baseball match or whatever is finished, and demand is really, really high. And so they put the prices up — they surge the prices. And that attracts more people to drive so it can increase supply to match demand. It’s a similar logic, I guess. But what dynamic pricing does is it basically allows Uber or any of these platforms, to set prices based on lots of different data inputs. So it could be based on supply and demand factors in that moment. It could be based on what competitors are doing. It could be based on historical data from the worker, or from the consumer.

But from the perspective of the driver, with dynamic pricing, there’s not any way of understanding that: If I do this journey, and this journey is X kilometers long, I will get X dollars or X euros. The link between distance and price is completely ruptured with a dynamic pricing model because there’s so many variables that go into determining the price and the pay level. So if you are driving, you never really know how much you’re going to earn with dynamic pricing, on any trip across any day. You can’t really plan your life. It’s a new level of precariousness, the pricing system. There’s suspicions that driver’s own data is being used against them. So imagine — just say you’re a driver, and you accept a ten kilometer journey for $25. And I’m also a driver, and I don’t accept it. Then the next time, the algorithm may offer you $23, rather than $25, because it realized that you’re going to accept it. They want to give you as little as possible in pay. And it may offer me $27, rather than $25 that I won’t accept, because I didn’t accept the $25 journey last day. You see what I mean.

So I watched a presentation on YouTube from a former Uber executive about dynamic pricing. And what she said was the purpose of dynamic pricing is to find “the revenue maximizing price.” So the most that the consumer will be willing to pay, and the least that the driver will be willing to accept. Now you might be thinking: But hold on a minute! If Uber is extracting the higher price out of the consumer, then surely that is good for the driver because that means that pay will be the optimal amount. But the thing about dynamic pricing is that it’s de-linked the price of the journey, and the pay rate of the journey. So I did an interview with a union leader in the UK about this. And he said that one of the things that can get you robo-fired now — automatically kicked off the the app — is if you’re caught looking at the Uber customer app at the same time as while you’re working on Uber’s driver app, because they don’t want drivers to be comparing the price rates to the pay rates because they’re not the same. You can be charging a customer a huge amount and paying a driver a tiny amount and making the difference between those two.

As you said earlier, Uber is in a new context. All these platforms are in a new context of high interest rates, pressure from investors to deliver profitability, and dynamic pricing, I think the reason why it’s been pushed and rolled out known is because it helps them squeeze the consumer and helps them squeeze the driver. But it’s leading to a lot of discontent. There’s been protests in London about it’s roll out there. Wolt is a European food delivery company that’s owned by an American company, DoorDash. And it has been rolling at dynamic pricing in lots of different European countries recently. And there are strikes and protests in almost all these countries where it’s rolling out because the food delivery couriers don’t understand what why they’re being paid what they’re being paid. There’s no logic to it, and the pay is going down. That’s the impacts of dynamic pricing: they’re getting paid less. So I think it’s a really serious thing. And I think it’s something that really needs to be talked more about, because this is Uber’s path to profitability. We already know Uber’s a dirty company and its history of corruption, that sort of thing. But it will really be based on screwing both the customer and the driver as much as possible.

PM: It’s just so concerning to see how this plays out. And I think it really cements how this algorithmic model of pricing and of managing workers is so incredibly weighted in favor of the company and of management. Because as you’re saying, even if the workers get access to the data, it’s still so opaque. It’s still so difficult to understand what is going on here, especially if you’re having such incredible fluctuations and movements around pricing. It’s not something that’s stable — it makes it even more difficult to understand and to make out what’s going on there. And that’s even if you have access to the data, which the vast majority of Uber workers would not have. And so it’s then so much more difficult to gain insight into what is actually happening. Uber workers and people who are researching these companies have looked increasingly into the difference between what the drivers are earning and what the customers are being charged.

There was a report out recently from UCLA that found that as Uber has raised its prices in the past few years, the benefits of that have not fully gone to the workers, which means that Uber itself is taking a much bigger cut of the fare so that, as you say, it can try to show a profit. So that it can try to show that its numbers are finally working out after more than a decade of operation and still losing money. And this is all of the big ideas of: Oh, we’re going to do flying cars and self driving cars! All this stuff is out the window — they ditched all of that early in the pandemic. And now the means to actually show a profit, to show that they can actually be a workable business at some point is just to say: Okay, the fees are going up; the prices are going up, and we’re going to keep pushing on workers to make sure that they don’t get the rights and the pay and the benefits that they deserve because this is how we make our money, by fighting the workers, making sure that we exploit them as much as possible. And also seeing how much we can squeeze out of the customers before they’ll finally abandon us and go do something else.

BW: Yes, absolutely. And I wonder if Uber would have been able to get away with rolling this out if we didn’t have the inflation crisis, which forced so many drivers back into their cars. Because before that, Uber had a big problem with driver shortages or having to offer bonuses and stuff like that, to try and get drivers back into their cars. But with the inflation crisis, the dynamic shifted, and people feel like they have to drive. They feel they have to accept what they are offered. Uber was boasting about this and was saying the inflation crisis has been great for us — we’re doing amazing. It’s almost like they want to show off the fact that the reason why they’re doing better than they were before — by the way, they’re still losing money. They’re doing better than they were before is because drivers have no option. It’s not because they love driving for Uber. It’s because they’re fucking desperate — it’s a grim situation.

Dynamic pricing is certainly helping Uber in the short-term. I’m not convinced — people are going to get fed up of that. If you’re a driver, you get one price for one trip, and then a completely different price for another one, and it’s the same distance trip. How could you put up with that? It’s ridiculous. I think it is a fundamental right, certainly in the UK. Once you agree to do work, you should know how much you’re going to be paid for that work before you start doing it. And this ideat that you just work, and well, Uber decides how much you get is absurd! I don’t think it’s going to work for Uber long-term, but in the immediate term, it does seem to be working for them.

PM: It’s completely ridiculous. And as you say, it just continues to show that Uber is a company that relies on people being in difficult situations so they end up driving for Uber in order to bring in a bit of extra cash to meet their bills at the end of the month and stuff like that. That’s how the company got started — it got started in the 2008 recession, when people were really hard up as well, and it took advantage of that. And this is just how it tends to benefit time and time again. As we wrap up our conversation, I want to talk about a specific model that you’ve been writing about a bit over the past number of months. And that is what is going on in Barcelona. Obviously, we’re talking about these kinds of EU-wide discussions around what platform work is going to look like and you mentioned the Riders Law that is coming in at the Spanish level.

But in Barcelona, in particular, there has been a really strong organization by the taxi workers in order to push back against Uber and the ride hailing business model, the desire to turn all these people into independent contractors that are, as you say, at the whim of Uber, and its dynamic pricing, and algorithmic management and all these sorts of things. Can you talk to us a bit about the recent achievements that they’ve had in pushing back against Uber and what that is look like on the ground in Barcelona?

BW: For me, Barcelona is really sort of inspiring. It is a case where Uber, at least for the time being, has lost. They’ve lost the battle for a city. That’s really quite unique and different. And there’s not just the loss but they’re actually building an alternative there as well. Uber launched in Barcelona in 2014 and in response there were taxi strikes, and out of those taxi strikes emerged a new union called Elite Taxi Barcelona. And this union is really cool! [laughs]. It’s quite different because its leader is called Tito Álvarez — he goes around in a yellow vest with the words “Fuck Uber” on the back. So you get an idea of the kind of character you’re looking at here.

PM: My kind of guy!

Ben Wray
They use really militant tactics, so they blockaded airports, train stations, city centers. They’re willing to do what it takes to win. And all these tactics it has used over the years has had a big impact on the politics there — the Barcelona City Council and the Catalan Parliament — which has had to respond to these strikes, these taxi strikes with strengthening its regulations on private hire platforms. And due to that pressure, Uber has effectively kind of been pushed out of Barcelona twice, first in 2019, and in 2021. It’s always trying to find ways to relaunch — they are still trying to find ways to relaunch. But there was a key moment in July last year, when the Catalan Parliament passed legislation which effectively barred private hire platforms from operating beyond passenger vans and limousines. They couldn’t operate normal cars. The logic that was put forward when the parliament proposes legislation was that they consider the taxi to be a public service. And it didn’t make sense to have competition because it was a public service for the city. And therefore, the private hire platforms that had been wanting to stay in Barcelona had to offer a completely different type of service to the one that the taxis offer.

Now, obviously, the private hire platforms were absolutely apoplectic about this. Cabify, which is the main one in Spain, they put up posters all around Barcelona attacking the transport minister. And so it’s interesting, actually, in one of the posters, they said the transport minister is a hypocrite, because our data shows that she has been taking X number of Cabify journeys. They were implying that they were publishing someone’s personal data. Actually, it didn’t turn out to be true. The data they were publishing was just journeys to the general area that the transport ministry was in and could have been taken by anyone, not the transport minister. Probably the Transport Minister has a government vehicle, they probably don’t take Cabify. So, ridiculous. Bolt, another of the private hire platforms, what their response was to the legislation was to put artificial extensions onto their cars. Because the law said private hire platforms need to have vehicles over a certain size. So they can’t be cars have to be like limousines, or passenger vans. So they added these artificial extensions on the car. And of course, the police said: Well, this is against public safety, because drivers can’t see these extensions; so they had to remove them. But you get the idea that they can have ridiculous tactics they had to stop this.

So anyway, while all this was happening, they set up a public taxi app in Barcelona. So all the taxis are linked in with this app. And it’s just one click and you get your taxi ordered. It means there’s less taxis driving around wasting time and less pollution. So they’re building a new model using this technology — a public, planned taxi model. Elite Taxi, the union, has even been trying to find ways to make it easier for people who used to be private hire drivers to become taxi drivers. Because they need to grow the number of taxis to serve the demand, because obviously, the private hire platforms have disappeared. But when this legislation came into effect on first of January this year, predictably, the private hire platforms ignored the law and tried to keep operating in the city. But the police have actually been cracking down on and have been towing — once they’ve been finding people operating Uber and Bolt and that sort of thing — they’ve been towing the cars away. So it’s really quite remarkable that there is this city in Europe, where Ubers are being towed away, and you have a public app model. I think it’s an illustration of how, if you can combine a strong workers movement with politicians that aren’t just in the pocket of the platform lobby, you can resist Uberization, and you can have a better model which protects workers.

PM: It’s a fantastic story. And I was so happy to read about it in what you’ve been writing, and I found it particularly fascinating that it wasn’t just that the government decided to make this public taxi app, but part of what Elite Taxi was pushing for both in trying to restrict the operation of the Cabifys and Bolts and Ubers that were operating, but was to also say: We want you to make a public taxi app that is used by the taxi companies, instead of having the taxi companies make their own. Because it does very clearly seem like something that the government should be doing — this is a service that they’re providing, especially if they’re talking about it as a public service to the people of the city. They should be creating this app that can then be used by the public to access the taxi system. And that is a unified platform, instead of having a bunch of different separate taxi apps by different taxi companies. So I think it’s a fascinating story. Is there any indication of how it’s going so far in Barcelona?

BW: The things I’ve been reading is mainly the tensions around how the platforms are still operating and the conflicts around that. So it’s not totally clear yet. I think on Monday coming, they have the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. So there’s suddenly massive demand. I think that’ll be a test to see if they can meet that demand with the new public taxi app. Can they get these people signed up to the public taxi app to use it and that sort of thing? It’s really hard to find examples of public sector, digital innovation like that — using technology in a way, which isn’t actually intervening in an economic sector. I don’t know if there’s any examples in the US. There are very few examples in Europe, apart from that. It works so much better.

If you have a public platform, where there isn’t this competitive model, you have a more planned model. If they want to get a normal taxi, people shouldn’t have to just call up and that sort of thing and use old methods. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to just use your phone. But as you say, if you do it just as a co-op, it’s very hard to market it, it’s very hard to fund it — it is really difficult. You don’t have that venture capital behind it. But governments have the funding behind them. And they also have the public profile to get the media attention, where it can get the public to know about the app, use the app. So I think a public model has got a lot going for. It’s just sad there’s so few examples that have actually been tried out.

PM: And I think that’s a really good point around the difficulties that, say, a platform cooperative model face, where it doesn’t have access to the venture funding. It can’t lose billions of dollars, like Uber did, in order to price out the competition and try to get a hold on various markets. But the public sector can really push back both by funding the creation of these kinds of services, and working with unions and workers in order to ensure that it works for them. And it’s beneficial to everyone who’s using it, but also to put in the regulations to restrict the activities of the private competitors that are exploiting workers and the public rather than delivering a service that is mutually beneficial for everybody. Ben, it’s been really fascinating to chat to you about all of these topics to get an update on what’s going on in Europe. Is there anything we didn’t chat about that you think people should should know before we close off our conversation?

BW: We could go on and on, couldn’t we? I don’t want to take up too much of your audience’s day or whatever they’re doing so we should probably leave it there.

PM: Sounds good! But we’ll have to it get another update from you in the future as these things continue to progress and move on and see how they keep developing. Ben, thank you so much for taking the time. It’s been great to chat as always!

BW: Always good to join in. Thanks!